Here’s what most people do. They wait until it’s already warm and colorful outdoors before noticing that their yards look pretty bad and wondering what they can do to change that sad fact. And what’s even sadder is that by then, usually late April or May, they’ve already missed the best time to get their gardens ready for the season. So here’s what you should be doing in March, early April at the absolute latest! In fact, most years I do all this in late February but this year, back-to-back blizzards mandated a late start.
- Removing all the leaves, fallen twigs and branches. Even if you did this in the fall, more have probably blown your way or fallen.
- Cutting off the ratty-looking foliage of perennials that are above ground.
- Digging out all the weeds you can see.
- Cutting back vines that are growing where you don’t want them.
- Cutting back ornamental grasses, including liriope, and the dead stems of perennials if you left them up for the winter (which is a good idea, for wildlife) to a few inches high.
- Using a cultivator or gloved hand to loosen the mulch, acorns and other dried plant matter covering the ground around your shrubs and perennials. This allows water and air to more easily penetrate to the roots.
Why do all that now, so early? Because if you have spring-blooming bulbs or perennials that emerge early in your borders, they could be trampled on if this clean-up is done after they’ve emerged. Or worse, if you wait til your garden has started producing masses of new growth, you won’t be able to see those weeds and out-of-control vines. Weeding now will reduce your weeding burden throughout the entire season.
Applying organic mulch on top of your garden is the single most important thing you can do for your garden every year, bar none. That’s because it prevents weeds, regulates soil temperature, and retains moisture. Plus, as it decomposes over the course of the season and is carried underground by earthworms and other creatures of the soil, it improves soil structure, which means better drainage and better use of nutrients. In my garden organic mulch is the only form of fertilizer I use, though most gardens and all new ones benefit from a one-inch application of compost in the spring, also. (Certain plants — edibles, annuals, and anything in pots — still need fertilizer no matter what). I use "leafmold", the chopped-up and aged leaves my town creates and offers for free to residents, which improves the soil but doesn't last long. Pine "fines" are a great choice and last a bit longer. Mulches that come in large chunks last the longest, though the down side to that is that they don't improve the soil as much as faster-decomposing mulches. Like weeding and leaf removal, mulching is a job that’s easier to do before new bulbs and perennials have emerged, especially if they’ve just popped up and are hard to see.
Creating Places to Step
One frequently heard caveat about spring work in the garden is that if you tromp all over your beds and borders when the ground is super-saturated from spring rains (or this year, snow), you’ll cause soil compaction, a very bad thing for the future health of your plants. So providing places to step in the garden is essential if you want to, for example, pull weeds when it’s easy to do because the soil is so wet. So this month when you’re cleaning out those borders why not strategically place small fieldstones or pavers where your feet need to be placed in order to reach your plants? This one-time chore will help you stay in control of your garden (by weeding and pruning back as needed) throughout the season. Without safe places to step, it’s best to test the soil before walking on it by grabbing a handful of soil and firming it into a ball, then dropping it. If it stays in a ball, the soil is too wet to dig in or walk on. If it crumbles, it’s okay to walk on.
Another area of disagreement is whether or not to feed your lawn in the spring. Many sources recommend against spring feeding because it encourages top growth at the expense of root growth, promotes weeds, leads to extra mowing and, with spring rains, causes nutrient run-off into our waterways. Yet some experts in organic gardening say it’s only synthetic or fast-acting fertilizers that cause water pollution, not organic, slow-release fertilizers. So if you forgot to feed your lawn last fall and it really needs it, go ahead but give our rivers a break and use an organic one.
If your lawn is sunny and has a history of crabgrass, corn gluten is an effective organic pre-emergent weed killer, applied when the forsythia are blooming (or, according to other experts, when forsythia blooms are dropping). As an added bonus, corn gluten contains a small amount of nitrogen (10 percent by weight), so it helps to "green-up" your lawn in a safe, organic way. Remember to always follow the instructions.
Fall is the best time of year for planting grass seed but late February through the end of March is the second-best time, and the new grass will have time to germinate and get established before it gets hot. Just don’t seed at the same time you’re applying fertilizer or corn gluten.
Late March/early April is a great time to prune trees and shrubs that have dropped their leaves because you can see what you’re doing. Also, because they’re dormant, they won’t respond by sprouting new growth that could be killed by cold spells.
- Remove broken branches. Bleeding sap doesn’t hurt them, so don’t worry about it.
- Remove bagworm bags now. Destroy them or throw them away; don’t just leave them on the ground.
March is a good time to prune butterfly bushes, spireas, caryopteris, forsythias and crape myrtles — if needed or desired. The detailed how-to’s won’t fit in this column, so just Google "prune" and the name of the shrub type to find out whether yours really needs pruning and if so, how to do it.
Installing New Plants, Moving Old Ones
Buy and plant shrubs and perennials as soon as they’re available in the stores — the sooner the better. It gives them more time to get their roots established before the heat which is much more of a killer than winter cold. Be careful not to disturb still-dormant perennials, though, so if you’re not sure where things are, wait.
And if, like me, you like to rearrange/redesign practically constantly, early spring is a great time to do that. The more time they have to get settled into their new location before it gets hot, the better. (It may be counter-intuitive, but it's heat that's usually responsible for killing new plants, not cold.)
It's time to plant potatoes, onion sets, peas, Chinese cabbage, leeks, beets, kale, mustard, and turnips.